Canada’s national team plays its first match of 2012 on Wednesday in Cyprus, meeting up with Armenia on neutral ground at Tsirion Stadium (noon ET, Rogers Sportsnet One). The two countries have never met before.
After a roller-coaster 2011, coach Stephen Hart hopes that his squad puts in a good effort, ahead of a hectic schedule that will see the Canadians take part in a grueling World Cup qualifying campaign that kicks off in June.
Canada have never played Armenia at senior men’s international level.
The 71st-ranked Canadians put an underwhelming 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament behind them later that year during the second round of World Cup qualification, the round in which Canada entered the fray. Hart’s team predictably finished atop a group that included three Caribbean minnows, although a couple of unexpected draws raised some questions.
Canada have been idle since pummeling St. Kitts and Nevis in mid-November, and will use the Armenia game to get a number of core players reacquainted with one another, as well as introducing a few younger names into the fray. Given that this game falls on a short mid-week international break, Hart elected to call a largely Europe-based squad. Many of Canada’s bigger names will be present, but quite a few important absences will test the Canadians’ depth.
The biggest question facing the 18-man squad is the fitness of a few players returning from recent injuries, most notably midfield general Atiba Hutchinson, who underwent a couple of knee surgeries in recent months and has only recently made his way back into the starting XI of club side PSV Eindhoven.
Hutchinson is joined by stalwarts Kevin McKenna, Josh Simpson, Iain Hume, Mike Klukowski and Julian de Guzman, all of whom lend a veteran presence to an otherwise young group. Rob Friend, who was added to the roster over the weekend, is another familiar face that will give the coaching staff an added option up front. At the other end of the spectrum are youngsters Nana Attakora, Marcus Haber, and 17-year-old Samuel Piette, all of whom will be eager to give coach Hart reason to call them up again when the games start to count in the summer.
The Armenians come into the game ranked 30 places above Canada, following a heartbreaking 2011 that saw the tiny former Soviet republic narrowly miss out on booking a spot in Euro 2012 after losing its final do-or-die qualifying game to Robbie Keane’s Ireland.
Armenia led their group in goals scored, thanks in part to onetime Real Salt Lake man Yura Movsisyan. The striker had three goals in his country’s qualification campaign, and is among the 31-man roster called in for Armenia’s mini-camp in Cyprus that also includes a game against Serbia on Feb. 28.
Head coach Vardan Minasyan will be splitting his squad for the two friendlies, and has said that he intends to use his entire roster over the pair of matches, so Canada could see a relatively weakened opponent on Wednesday.
Players to watch
CAN - Simeon Jackson (right). The 24-year-old has settled into the Premier League after a career spent climbing the ranks of England’s lower divisions, and is now a regular on a Norwich City side that has surprised many observers.
ARM - Henrikh Mkhitaryan. An attacking force in the midfield, the 23-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk player led Armenia with six goals in Euro qualifying.
Milan Borjan (Sivasspor), Nik Ledgerwood (SV Wehen Wiesbaden), Mike Klukowski (Manisaspor), Kevin McKenna (FC Köln), Adam Straith (FC Saarbrücken), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Iain Hume (Preston North End), Pedro Pacheco (CD Santa Clara), Tosaint Ricketts (FC Politehnica Timişoara), Simeon Jackson (Norwich City FC), Josh Simpson (BSC Young Boys), Nana Attakora (Unattached), Atiba Hutchinson (PSV Eindhoven), Samuel Piette (FC Metz), David Edgar (Burnley), Rob Friend (Eintracht Frankfurt), Marcus Haber (St. Johnstone), Kenny Stamatopoulos (AIK Fotbol)
Roman Berezovsky (Dinamo Moscow), Stepan Ghazaryan (FC Banants), Arsen Petrosyan (FC Pyunik), Grigor Meliksetyan (Paykan FC); Sargis Hovsepyan (FC Pyunik), Hrayr Mkoyan (PFC Spartak Nalchik), Valeri Aleksanyan (Sanat Naft Abadan FC), Levon Hayrapetyan (Lechia Gdańsk), Robert Arzumanyan (Jagiellonia Białystok), Artak Edigaryan (FC Pyunik), Arthur Yuspashyan (FC Pyunik), Varazdat Haroyan (FC Pyunik); Hovhannes Hambardzumyan (FC Banants), Andranik Voskanyan (FC Mika), Gagik Daghbashyan (FC Banants), Arthur Yedigaryan (FC Banants), Karlen Mkrtchyan (Metalurh Donetsk), Gevorg Ghazaryan (Metalurh Donetsk), Marcos Pizzelli (FC Kuban), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Shakhtar Donetsk), Zaven Badoyan (BATE Borisov), Edgar Malakyan (FC Pyunik), David Manoyan (FC Pyunik), Kamo Hovhannisyan (FC Pyunik), Valter Poghosyan (FC Banants), Masis Voskanyan (KSV Roeselare), Aras Özbiliz (Ajax); Yura Movsisyan (FC Krasnodar), Artur Sarkisov (Shinnik Yaroslavl), Norair Mamedov (FC Zwolle), Hovhannes Hovhannisyan (FC Pyunik)